Cory Burke stood on the mound in Bristol, Conn., turning the baseball over and over in his hand.
ESPN cameras focused in, and print photographers took aim from the press box, as the 12-year-old Kickemuit Middle School eighth grader settled and began his windup. The crowd, packed in this past Saturday to watch the New England Little League championship game between Lincoln, RI and Westport, Conn., quieted down to a whisper. As the catcher waited for his throw, Cory kicked his leg, dropped down on the mound and made his pitch. The ball spun toward home plate, snapping into the back of the catcher’s mitt 46 feet away.
Cory let out a giant relieved grin, and the crowd broke into cheers.
“I was pretty nervous,” Cory said Tuesday, looking back on the pitch three days earlier. “But I got it over!”
In a summer of big moments, Cory Burke was at the center of many of them, developing from an ordinary kid playing baseball with his buddies into a consummate teammate and inspiration. Though he has been battling Ewing’s Sarcoma since last fall, Cory has never given up on his teams at Kickemuit, the King Philip Little League and the AAU East Bay Bulldogs. In return, his teammates and opponents have become his biggest supporters, and his best friends.
Cory started off the year on the sidelines, cheering on his buddies as he underwent treatment in Boston for the childhood bone cancer which was diagnosed after he developed soreness while playing ball last autumn.
Though he has been unable to play with his fellow teammates since the fall, Cory got through a tough winter unscathed and threw out the first pitch of the year for the Bulldogs. He also felt well enough to take the field for the first Kickemuit Wildcats game of the year, and threw out the first pitch for the 11-12 year olds in the King Philip League.
Coach Cory Santerre said it was clear to his teammates early on that Cory lived and breathed baseball. Most of them knew that anyway, as he’s been active in Little League for years.
“Throughout the winter he would go to chemotherapy, to radiation, show up to practice and participate, sometimes take some swings if he was strong enough,” he said. “He was always motivating the kids.”
When the all-stars season started, that continued.
“He would show up during the practices and games, helping out. He would hit sometimes, but he just ended up showing them how to be a good teammate. These kids rallied behind him. It was a nice thing to see how no matter what, he was always there, always supporting his team.
The King Philip Little League plays in District II, and the All Stars started following the regular exhibition season. Over the course of the eight-game All-Star season it became clear that the team had a good shot at winning the district championship, which it hadn’t done since 1984. After the final game, KPLL All Stars ended the season at 7-1, and in the statewide tourney won the division championship for the first time in 29 years, beating Rumford 7-5 for the title before a home crowd in Bristol.
Through it all, Cory was there, even giving up two chances to meet his baseball hero to do so. In July, the Jimmy Fund contacted Cory, a Yankees fan, and asked if he’d like to meet Mariano Rivera, New York’s closer and a first ballot Hall of Famer. He was in Boston for a series against the Red Sox.
“I told them I couldn’t,” he said. “I chose to be with my team instead,” which was playing the first round of the playoffs the same day.
Well, how about luxury box tickets to the next night’s game?
“Sorry,” he replied. “I chose the team.”
Meanwhile, the team was reciprocating.
Early on in the year Cory’s friends started a website that details his story and seeks to raise money to help defray his family’s expenses as they drive him back and forth to Boston for treatment. Supporters solicited donations, held fund-raisers and sold shirts with Cory’s #12 on the back and the slogans, “Cory’s Crew” and “Cory won’t fight alone.”
They sold the shirt at games, hung it from dugouts during every game and had friends and relatives distribute it. Coaches wore it when the Kickemuit Wildcats won their first Middle School state title since 1989, and word got around about Cory and his story.
At the state championships, Patrick Gribbin was listening.
Patrick, 12, plays for the Lincoln All Stars, and heard about Cory when he played King Philip in the second round of the states, beating KPLL 11-0.
“I went to my coach and told him that I wanted to do something for Cory,” Patrick said.
With Lincoln coach Matt Netto’s blessing and help, Patrick sent an e-mail to Coach Santerre, made a donation on behalf of Lincoln and got a big pile of shirts in return. Handed out at Lincoln’s practices prior to the state championship game, the team kept them with them the rest of the year. When they won the states and headed to the New England Regionals at the ESPN baseball complex in Bristol, Conn., the shirts were packed along with their stirrups, cleats and jerseys.
“We wore them whenever we were on ESPN,” Patrick said. “People would ask us about them, and it was pretty cool to have people meet us and ask about Cory.”
ESPN producers noticed the shirts, too, and prior to Saturday’s New England regional championship decided to do something special for Cory.
And so it was that Patrick Gribbin, Cory’s opponent on the field but a friend through and through, raised his mitt Saturday afternoon and waited for his ceremonial first pitch. When the ball settled into the mitt for a strike, Patrick grinned, ran up to Cory and gave him the ball. The crowd, filled with Lincoln and Westport fans but also a contingent of Burke supporters who had come up from Bristol and Warren, filled the stadium with cheers.
“I told him that he’s going to be a great baseball player,” Patrick said.
Note: Lincoln went on to lose the regional championship 1-0. Cory just finished up his latest round of treatment, feels good and hopes to be back out on the diamond next year. See www.corywontfightalone.com to learn more, or help Cory’s family face their substantial medical bills.